May 14 2014 12:00 AM

Former MSU student finds success with debut novel, rock group

In his new novel, the apocalyptic horror thriller, “Bird Box,” Josh Malerman hits all the right notes. It makes sense, since Malerman is also a musician who has shared his writing skills as the front man for the indie band the High Strung since 2004.

The band originated in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, but Malerman’s roots in Bloomfield Hills give the band a decidedly Detroit feel. It’s one of those hardworking, Motor Citystyle bands that goes full tilt producing albums and doing rock until you drop road trips.

In a phone interview last week from Portland, Ore., where he was attending the World Horror Convention, Malerman, 39, said he had tried his hand at writing earlier, but failed to finish five novels. He said being on the road with the band gave him time to write 18 (as yet unpublished) books, including “Bird Box.”

“The floodgates just opened,” Malerman said. “It was my writing that first got me into a band. I was writing for what seemed forever and a group said ‘we want you to write music.’”

Malerman’s book has gotten excellent pre-publication buzz for a debut novel and was featured by USA Today last weekend in its “New & Noteworthy” book selection list. It was also named as an Indie Next pick by the nation’s independent booksellers. Couple that with prepub buzz on Huffington Post and a movie deal with Universal Studios featuring director Adres Muschietti (“Mama”) and the book should move quickly into the hands of dedicated horror readers who are always looking for the next big monster or psychological thriller.

The book is set in Michigan. Malorie, a young mother of twins, is trapped in a home with other survivors in a last stand against … something … that’s out to get them. All you have to do is look at “it” and you will go crazy, killing others and then yourself. Nothing can save you. As supplies begin to dwindle, the survivors make more frequent and dangerous forays outside for food, always wearing blindfolds. Ultimately Malorie must escape with her children to a place where the only way there is to float 20 miles down a river — blindfolded. It’s one scary boat ride that Malerman said was his inspiration.

“(I had) a vision of a woman blindfolded floating down the river,” he said. “It was a big abstract entity.”

That the children are simply named “boy” and “girl” illustrates how Malerman has intentionally stripped this horror novel to its essence. Flipping between the past and the present keeps the reader in suspense and, of course, fear. Malerman said he was introduced to the adrenaline rush of horror movies by his uncle when he was 12. He never lost that rush, and said he was influenced by “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” He said readers who come to his book signings should “expect surprises,” alluding to the blindfolded river run.

While on the road with his band, he wrote 17 books in preparation for the success of his 18th which after a non-traditional path to publishing went to auction; analogous to being nominated for a Grammy Award in the music business. You could say that Malerman has “The Luck You Got,” the title of High Strung’s 2005 hit song, which was played in the Showtime series, “Shameless.”

The High Strung got started in East Lansing when MSU students Malerman and Derek Berk (a drummer) spun off a new group from the band, the Masons. In 2005, the High Strung was featured in a segment of the NPR radio show “This American Life” called “The Dewey Decibel System,” which discussed the band’s unusual literary tour of 34 Michigan libraries to promote literacy. That odd tour scored them even an odder gig at the library at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The souvenir T-shirts sport the phrase “Rocking in Fidel’s Backyard.”